A pile of fallen leaves
As high as a mountain
Separates my hermitage
further and further
From the world of woe.
The precursor of the Japanese garden was the sanctified space of the Shinto shrine. These shrines manifested ideas from both the Japanese and Chinese traditions.
The idea of these unique gardens began during the Asuka period. Japanese merchants witnessed the gardens that were being built in China, and brought many of the Chinese gardening techniques and styles back to Japan. Today, the tradition of Japanese garden art is still popular around the world, with many eastern and western practitioners expressing themselves through the medium.
Japanese gardens first appeared on the island of Honshu, the large central island of Japan. Their aesthetic was influenced by the distinct characteristics of the Honshu landscape; rugged volcanic peaks, narrow valleys, mountain streams with waterfalls and cascades, lakes, and beaches of small stones. They were also influenced by the rich variety of flowers and different species of trees, particularly evergreen trees, on the islands, and by the four distinct seasons in Japan, including hot, wet summers and snowy winters.
Japanese gardens have their roots in the Japanese religion of Shinto, with its story of the creation of eight perfect islands, and of the shinchi, the lakes of the gods. Prehistoric Shinto shrines to the kami, the gods and spirits, are found on beaches and in forests all over the island. Prehistoric shrines often took the form of unusual rocks or trees marked with cords of rice fiber (shimenawa) and surrounded with white stones or pebbles, a symbol of purity. The white gravel courtyard became a distinctive feature of Shinto shrines, Imperial Palaces, Buddhist temples, and zen gardens.
Japanese gardens were also strongly influenced by the Chinese philosophy of Daoism and Amida Buddhism, imported from China in or around 552 AD. Daoist legends spoke of five mountainous islands inhabited by the Eight Immortals, who lived in perfect harmony with nature. Each Immortal flew from his mountain home on the back of a crane. The islands themselves were located on the back of an enormous sea turtle. In Japan, the five islands of the Chinese legend became one island, called Horai-zen, or Mount Horai. Replicas of this legendary mountain, the symbol of a perfect world, are a common feature of Japanese gardens, as are rocks representing turtles and cranes.
There are some very famous gardens that are certainly worth making the effort to visit. This requires pre-arrangements. Here are some of them:
Kokedera (Moss Temple)
Reservation help in English: http://www.saihoji-kokedera-reservation.com/about/
Katsura Imperial Villa